Thursday, May 03, 2012

searching for hannibal

"When I was 16 . . . and going to prep school . . . during the Punic Wars . . ."

So begins a tale told by the older George to the much younger Nick in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  It is one of my favorite movie phrases -- capturing the eternal tension between age and youth.

Of course, I cannot deliver it with any of the gravitas of Richard Burton.  But Edward Albee’s subtle reference to the “Punic Wars” has just enough academic wit to be subtly clever.

It may seem an odd connection to Cartagena -- one of Spain’s most ancient cities.  Unless you already knew that the city is named after Carthage -- one of the many invaders who ruled the area.  And, it was from here that local boy Hannibal set forth with his elephant act to destroy Rome.

This trip has played to a trunk full of my boy memories.  Including Hannibal.  Arguably the best west’s best military strategist. 

Because we were in port for less than nine hours, I decided to limit my tour time to one task.  Finding Hannibal.

I will cut the suspense short.  I did not find him.  There are several monuments to his brother.  But nothing for Hannibal.
There is a good reason.  All of the invaders of this region have left very few marks on the city.  The Phoenicians (or Philistines, as they are known by we Bible-readers).  The Carthaginians.  The Romans.  The Vandals.  The Visigoths.  The Byzantines.  The Moors.  The medieval Castilians.  Each destroying what the others had built.

Despite all of that history, the city essentially came into its own only in the 1700s when the Spanish Bourbon kings recognized Cartagena's value as a naval port.  And that is the face it now shows to the world.  The best naval port in the western Mediterranean.

There are some older neighborhoods.  With their characteristically narrow medieval alleys and noticeably older buildings.
But most of the civic and public buildings are art nouveau.  That struck me as a bit odd.  What we once referred to as The Turn of the Century did not seem to be a very auspicious time for Spain to have a construction boom. 

Spain had just lost the last vestiges of its once massive empire.  In this case, to the United States.  Of course, as most empires have discovered, imperial holdings can drain far more resources than they provide.

The first monument a visitor encounters on a walk into town is an obelisk honoring the sailors who died in that war with the United States.  A rather odd monument.  Considering that Spain lost the war.

There is an old English joke. “ I wanted to see the Spanish navy.  But I could not find a glass-bottom boat.”  Maybe the Spanish relish the punch line.

It appears that Spain not only reaped the results of a late Industrial Revolution but also a boom in agricultural products. And that wealth found its way into civic buildings.  Such as, the City Hall.

Or this palace tucked into a sea of later pastels.

The hill you see in the center of the photograph at the top of this post once hosted a series of fortresses.  All of them are gone.  But there is an interesting interpretative center up there chronicling what has been retrieved in archaeological digs.

Now, it offers one of the best views of the city.  Including this Roman theater that was uncovered in 1987 during excavation of the ruins of the Santa María la Vieja Cathedral.

The fact that the theater was buried under the accretions of conquest probably saved it.  Some of the theater’s stones were used in building other buildings (such as the now-destroyed) castle on the hill.  But it is as well-preserved as the theater at Ephesus – even though it is quite a bit smaller. 

And it is old.  Its construction dates back to the 2nd century BC.

There is also a story behind the cathedral.  Cartagena lost its bishop see centuries ago, the 13th century cathedral was in relatively good shape until the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.

Cartagena was the last republican city to hold out against Franco’s forces, who bombarded the city into surrender.  One of the casualties was the cathedral.  Irreparably damaged.  But the destruction led to the discovery of the theater below.

Maybe it is because I used the rather functional elevator in Oregon City to get from my office to the courthouse for so many years that I have always been interested in municipal elevators.  Cartagena’s reminds me of the one in Lisbon -- but with more style.

For those of you who have commented that I seem more interested in architecture and history than in people.  I offer the following.

First, an answer to a question I have often asked about living in a large city.  Where do you do your grocery shopping?  Up the street and you take the basket home with you -- to return on the next trip.

These children were in a square having the time of their lives.  Chasing pigeons and each other.  This was a rare moment of calm.  Where they planned mayhem on the resident koi.

And no European city would be complete without its resident company of street theater.  This group was led by a fellow on stilts, and could easily have made up a cirque du soleil act.  At least, they were occupying nothing but their own space.  Even though they seem to perplex the tourist on the left.

Having failed to find Hannibal, I returned to the ship -- only to discover that the winds were too high for us to safely make the turns to leave the harbor.  Two cruise ships ahead of us needed the assistance of tug boats.

We did not need them.  The winds had died down enough for the captain to maneuver us out of the harbor safely.

And here I was hoping to see us being treated like one of Hannibal’s elephants.  Being led about by something smaller.


Andean said...

Enjoyed the tour of Cartagena. All nice photographs, you're making great use of the camera. City Hall-- portrays remarkable architecture.

John Calypso said...

How many miles or kilometers can that ship cover in a day?  You are making good time - ill winds withstanding.

Kim G said...

Nice intro to a nice city. I took a look at it on Google Maps/Satellite and it looks worth visiting. Also the street view of the older district looks a lot like parts of Mexico.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where the city is old, but no Roman ruins, sadly.

Cking said...

Isn't the real Carthage a suburb of Tunis, Tunisia?  Remember visiting there in the 1970s.  Or, am I getting confused?

Ronda Grimsley said...

I like the History part - very much.

Steve Cotton said...

 I am quickly being won over to the virtues of art nouveau architecture.

Steve Cotton said...

 The ship usually cruises about 21 or 22 knots.  It is a nice way to get around.

Steve Cotton said...

 Cartagena looks very similar to one of the colonial Mexican cities.  Especially, Mexico City.  But this is the mother land for architecture.

Steve Cotton said...

 It s.  This is a Carthaenian colony named in honor of the home town.  Like New York.

Steve Cotton said...

 Thanks, Ronda.